Sketch Artist Captures 'Something Unusual' At Senate Trial

Jan 24, 2020
Originally published on January 27, 2020 11:13 am

The public's view of President Trump's impeachment trial is limited. In an era of ubiquitous cameras, no photographs are allowed in the Senate chamber. The only video comes from a set of cameras operated by government employees that's used by the television networks. There aren't many camera angles.

To give the public a closer view, news outlets are employing a low-tech solution.

Art Lien has been giving readers of The New York Times a different view of each day's events. From the gallery above the Senate floor, the courtroom sketch artist takes his pencil to 9-by-12-inch sheets of paper and looks for the tiny details that the cameras can miss.

Details such as fidget spinners.

Lien's drawing of North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr with a fidget spinner.
Kisha Ravi / NPR

On Thursday, Lien drew Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., with one of the contraptions on his desk. Burr reportedly gave them out to his Republican colleagues.

"This was sort of iconic yesterday. We noticed that several of the senators had fidget spinners on their desks," Lien tells NPR's Ari Shapiro on All Things Considered.

"I'm looking for color," Lien says. "You know, something unusual, something that says something or tells some kind of story."

On Tuesday, Lien says he found Sen. James Risch of Idaho "catching a few winks" while sitting in between Republican colleagues Mike Crapo, also of Idaho, and Roy Blunt of Missouri.

Art Lien's illustration of Sen. James Risch of Idaho "catching a few winks."
Kisha Ravi / NPR

"Sen. Risch on the very first day fell asleep," Lien says. "It was that late night, but this was only 5:30. ... He was the first to go. Actually, I haven't seen any other senators falling asleep."

"His spokesperson said he was just simply listening with his eyes closed, but his head was definitely going down and down and down," according to Lien.

Art Lien demonstrates his illustration method. He uses graphite pencils and fills in with watercolors.
Kisha Ravi / NPR

Lien has been a courtroom sketch artist since 1976, mainly covering the Supreme Court. It wasn't until 1986 that the Senate voted to allow complete television coverage of its proceedings. Lien says introducing the cameras made it easier to cover Congress.

"I was so glad when they brought in cameras. ... Things move very slowly at times and then they move very fast in Congress. And it's just a very, very tough assignment. And actually, when I went there last week for the swearing in of the senators, my heart kind of sank. You know it was like, 'Oh my God, this is such a hard job.' "

North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr with Georgia Republican Kelly Loeffler. "He caught my attention because he wasn't wearing socks. And he has very expensive loafers, or they seem that way. And so I did a sketch of him. And the next day, he had it as his profile picture on Twitter."
Kisha Ravi / NPR

It's hard to keep it interesting, Lien says, especially when the trial lasts hours and hours each day. But the cameras in the chamber have helped him narrow his attention.

"I think there probably is something colorful around every corner," he says. "It's just, you have to look harder. One wonderful thing about now is that I don't have to cover the wide shot of the chamber because that's on television. I don't have to cover the speaker, but I get to sort of roam around and look for other elements that I think are more interesting to me."

NPR's Connor Donevan and Justine Kenin produced and edited the audio version of this story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Most of the public gets one camera angle on Donald Trump's Senate impeachment trial. It's a video feed controlled by the Senate recording studio. The cameras are operated by government employees. They're generally pointed squarely at the dais. And no other visual recording is allowed in the chamber. But the rules don't say anything about sketch pads. That's why Art Lien has been sitting in on the proceedings. He is a courtroom artist who's normally based at the Supreme Court. He's covering the impeachment for The New York Times, and he's now here in the studio.

Welcome.

ART LIEN: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: I'm excited to see that you brought your sketch pad. Will you show us what you've got?

LIEN: OK. Well, here's one I did yesterday of Senator Collins and Murkowski.

SHAPIRO: Hunched over a pile of papers.

LIEN: And they seem to be paying very - you know, following along the arguments very closely.

SHAPIRO: These are not just any two Republican senators; they're two Republican senators who seem to be more moderate, and their votes may be in question. And so there is a real news judgment that you're making as well.

LIEN: Oh, yeah. That's why I sketched them because, you know, when it comes down to voting on witnesses, they're going to be key.

SHAPIRO: How about another one?

LIEN: OK. Let me see. I have - oh, OK. This was sort of iconic yesterday. We noticed that several of the senators had fidget spinners on their desks.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

LIEN: And so here is a sketch of Senator Burr with his fidget spinner.

SHAPIRO: Your focus on the fidget spinner tells me that you're approaching this job with a sense of humor.

LIEN: I try to.

SHAPIRO: So what are you looking for?

LIEN: Well, I'm looking for color, you know, something unusual, something that says something or tells some kind of story.

SHAPIRO: Give us an example.

LIEN: Yeah, the - a big hit on the very first day, Senator Risch...

SHAPIRO: This is Senator James Risch, Republican of Idaho.

LIEN: Yes. Senator Risch, on the very first day, fell asleep. It was that late night, but this was only 5:30.

SHAPIRO: He was at least described as the first to go.

LIEN: He was the first to go. Actually, I haven't seen any other senators falling asleep.

SHAPIRO: And you caught it on your sketch pad.

LIEN: I did.

SHAPIRO: Show us.

LIEN: It's right here.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) He's between two other senators. His head is resting on his hand.

LIEN: Between Crapo and Blunt.

SHAPIRO: Red tie, yeah.

LIEN: Yeah. And his spokesperson said he was just simply listening with his eyes closed. But his head was definitely going down and down and down.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Have you heard from any senators or their staff about how you have portrayed them, either positive or negative?

LIEN: Oh, I have.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Tell us about it.

LIEN: North Carolina Senator Burr.

SHAPIRO: Richard Burr, yeah.

LIEN: Yeah. He caught my attention because he wasn't wearing socks in his very expensive loafers - or they seemed that way. And so I did a sketch of him. And the next day, he had it as his profile picture on Twitter. And...

SHAPIRO: Really?

LIEN: Yeah. He's...

SHAPIRO: Well, that's a compliment.

LIEN: ...Very interested in it. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Do you complete all of these sketches sitting there in the chamber, or do you do the ink outlines and then bring them back and finish the watercolors in your office or someplace else?

LIEN: I'm not allowed to bring my little watercolor. I have a very small box with my watercolors, and I can't bring that into the chamber. So in the chamber, I'm just doing a line drawing, and then I come outside and finish it in the press gallery.

SHAPIRO: I think many people find doing watercolor to be almost a meditative activity. You're doing it on deadline as a job (laughter). Is there anything peaceful about it, or is it just, like, got to churn this one out and get onto the next one?

LIEN: Well, there's watercolor, and there's watercolor.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

LIEN: I'm really doing drawings and just adding a splash of watercolor.

SHAPIRO: It's the short order cook version of watercolor.

LIEN: When I retire, my ambition is to do real watercolors.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Then you'll do sunsets.

LIEN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Art Lien is sketching the Senate impeachment trial for The New York Times.

Thanks for coming in. We'll let you get back to work.

LIEN: Thank you very much, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF YASUAKI SHIMIZU & SAXOPHONETTES' "TOKYO TABOO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.